Heavy Hitters: Getting High Point Beer to the Masses

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Wasatch Beers founder Greg Schirf was instrumental in passing a 2007 bill that allowed Utah breweries to sell their product on-site. Photo: Adam Dorobiala

When I first arrived in Utah, I knew two things: I was going to ski over a hundred days a year and I would have to settle for 3.2 beer.  The second fact was tolerable because of the first.  However, over the years I have learned that this need not be the case.  Due to changes in local legislation and brewing laws, all Utah residents can enjoy high point beer—they just have to know where to find it.

Unfortunately, you can’t just waltz into your neighborhood pub and order up a pint of Squatters Fifth Element or Wasatch Devastator. Not yet, anyway.  Currently, the consumer’s best option is to visit one of the brewpubs scattered throughout the state.  In Salt Lake City proper, thirsty locals can stop by Hopper’s, RedRock, Squatters, the Utah Brewers Cooperative (UBC) or Epic Brewing (who specialize in creating only high point brews).  Each of these establishments is able to sell high-point beer in bottles under a special license.  The UBC, for instance, has a full-fledged Beer Store that offers up a wide selection of higher alcohol beers.  From year-round favorites like Wasatch Devastator, to limited releases like Squatters Hell’s Keep, you can quench your thirst in a variety of tasty ways. 

If you would rather grab a bite and a brew, you can check out RedRock Brewery and pick up the bottle-conditioned Reve, which is a meticulously crafted Belgium-style Trippel available in limited quantities.  When you first taste this wonderfully made beer, you can understand why Head Brewer, Kevin Templin, won’t serve it in a standard pint glass.  “It would be like painting a masterpiece on a scrap of cardboard,” says Templin.  Instead, Reve is served in a larger snifter type glass that allows the beer to breathe and adds to the presentation.  Be careful though: More than one of these 10.3% bevs will put you on the train to buzz town. 

The rules governing the sale of high point beer in Utah are quite dynamic, and breweries have had to acquire special liquor licenses just to sell their beer on premise.  Talking with Wasatch Beers founder Greg Schirf revealed another side to the story that most drinkers probably don’t realize.  Years ago, high point beer was only sold in liquor stores that were strictly monitored by Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.  At that juncture, consumers were able to purchase higher-gravity (above 3.2% alcohol by weight) at a substantial mark up.  This made acquiring such beers quite cost prohibitive and reduced the revenues of breweries like Wasatch and Squatters.  As an astute businessman, Schirf realized that current regulations were hindering the state’s economic development, since out of state breweries like Budweiser and Coors were raking in the cash.  With a bit of help from some sympathetic (and Mormon) legislators, Schirf was able to get a bill sponsored that allowed breweries to sell the beer that they produced on site.  This came about around 2007 when local wineries convinced the state government that they would go under if they could not sell their wines directly from the vineyard.  Fair is fair.  Now that breweries could offer better profit margins, it became economically feasible to start selling the brew right from the source.  However, businesses like RedRock, UBC and Wasatch still had to acquire a Type Five Package Agency License that effectively made their breweries into package stores.  So, in exchange for the ability to sell their products out the door, they write the UDABC a check every month and go about their business.  At this point they will take what they can get.  “Currently there is no new legislation on the books, but brewers are optimistic that laws will come around as people realize the growing number of sophisticated beer drinkers throughout the state,” says Schirf.

As more breweries and brewpubs are able to offer their products on location, the benefits of doing so present themselves in a number of ways.  “One advantage is educating people about your beer.  We can’t do tasting, but we can talk.  Clearly, there is also an economic incentive because of the change in the law.  The synergism of benefits between the educational advantage, the economic advantage, the volume, and the overall enthusiasm of different beers is great,” says Schirf.  Other breweries like Squatters and Hopper’s are also able to sell up to two bottles of high point beer to customers.  However, due to the current law, they must have their thirsty guests come around to the actual brewery entrance to pick up their beverages.  “I don’t really hold it against the state, they have their concerns to look out for, and so do we.  I’m all about making beer. If I continue doing that, results are sure to follow,” says Squatter’s head brewer Jenny Talley.  Her tenure with Squatters has led to an array of award winning brews over the past nineteen years, and she continues to use the brewery as her creative outlet.  Donovan Steele of Hopper’s is on the same page.  “I hope to see a day when we can make and sell full strength beer on draft in brewpubs. Bottling from a brewpub is challenging due to the limited space, but the advantages are small batches and creative opportunities with recipe design,” says Steele. 

With more breweries making the move to bottling and selling high point beer, it will only be a matter of time before the state’s legislators get the picture.  Until then, brewers like Talley, Schirf, Steele, Kevin Crompton of Epic Brewing and Templin will just keep doing what they do best: making beer.

Wasatch Beers founder Greg Schirf was instrumental in passing a  2007 bill that allowed Utah breweries to sell their product on-site. Photo: Adam Dorobiala